By DAVE BREZING | Record Correspondent | [url=http://www.staugustine.com]http://www.staugustine.com[/url]
Cuba rounds up and jails dozens of dissidents in April, convicting them of working with the United States to undermine the government of Fidel Castro. The U.S. in May expels 14 Cuban diplomats, accusing them of spying.
As Cuba and the U.S. glare at each other with renewed animosity and suspicion, they seem further apart than they have in decades. But on a fundamental cultural and personal level, that is not—and never has been—the case, a noted expert on Cuba says.
“Despite 40 to 45 years of very hostile rhetoric coming out of Havana toward the United States, I’d say that there are few countries in the world where Americans are more welcome,” says Louis A. Perez Jr., professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Perez, author of several books about Cuba’s history and culture, including “On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality and Culture,” is a key speaker this Saturday at a St. Augustine public forum in connection with “The Binding of Two Cultures,” an art exhibit sponsored by the St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association.
The exhibit and forum will explore the strong cultural connections that bridge the political and geographic divides. The month-long exhibit, opening Friday, will bring works of 13 artists from Baracoa, Cuba, to the St. Augustine Art Association, 22 Marine St., along with works of St. Augustine artists.
The parallels between Baracoa and St.Augustine are several, from their histories as the oldest Spanish settlements in their respective countries to their thriving artistic communities. Those distinct similarities hint at the hugely pervasive and broad cultural influences that have bound the two countries for hundreds of years. Cubans have assimilated many of their northern neighbor’s traits into their identity, Perez says. And Cuban culture, to a lesser extent, has had an impact on the U.S.
“In the constellation of what goes for Cuban—that which makes up ‘national character,’ taste, sensibilities, sense of humor, aesthetics—much has been derived from this fairly intimate relationship with the United States and Americans,” says Perez, whose grandfather came to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1920s.
From 18th-century colonial economic exploits, through the Spanish-American War and even amid the present political discord, the U.S. and Cuba have maintained a unique cultural embrace.“So many waves of people were educated in this country, visited this country, exposed to what people strive for, their values. It’s a very material culture,” he says. The culture of consumerism is as familiar to Cubans as it is to Americans, he says.
“If there’s any doubt about this, look at what Cubans are buying. Cuban kids are playing with the same toys, watching the same TV shows as American kids.”
There are two tiers of Cuban-American relations, he says. “One is the official government-to-government level that has a fairly tortured past and continues to have a fairly tortured present.
“The one that fascinates me more is the people-to-people level. Basically Cubans and Americans, independently of the politics of the governments, find ways to connect and pursue mutual interests and passions: baseball, old American cars, American movies, rock ‘n roll. The government defines the restrictions, but it’s astonishing how within those restraints people find ways to pursue person-to-person contact,” he says.
“The average Cuban citizen is very good about making the distinction between government and the people. And Americans who go to Cuba for the first time and know nothing about Cuba come back almost starry eyed. They connect with Cubans, almost at an intuitive level,” Perez says.
The diplomatic standoff is a complex and contentious issue. But, Perez says, political ideology aside, discussion of the recent deterioration in Cuba-U.S. relations should include Cuba’s national security fears. “The Cubans have been preoccupied with maintaining internal order,” he says. “Imagine how obsessed they are with national security.” The worst thing that can happen to dissidents now in Cuba is to be identified with the U.S. and the overthrow of Castro’s Marxist government, he says.
He suggests that, “if the U.S. policy backed off, it would allow space inside (Cuba) to expand and mobilize and pursue change.”
That is not a valid notion among many Cuban-American political action groups and others who support the U.S. economic embargo and travel restrictions against the repressive regime. Perhaps, though, it is a perspective with some legitimacy in the context of America’s post-9/11 militarism and invasion of Iraq, he says.
Art, ideas and human connections, not politics, will be the focus of the forum Saturday. Also participating in the forum, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the art association, are Cynthia Hollis, Brogan Museum of Arts and Science, Tallahassee; Donald Martin, Art Department chair, Flagler College; and Ivan Schulman, University of Illinois, cultural chairman of the St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association.